Monday, February 18, 2013

Teaching Writing

Our principal passed a long a couple of great resources this morning for my department to read on our snow day.

One article is from Mark Bauerlein and I blogged about it previously.

The other is a great piece in The Atlantic.  This article focuses on one school's atrocious writing scores and the steps they took to improve them.

When they examined what was really wrong with their students' writing, they discovered students lacked the basics in sentence formation and grammatical understanding.

But the truth is, the problems affecting New Dorp students are common to a large subset of students nationally. Fifty years ago, elementary-school teachers taught the general rules of spelling and the structure of sentences. Later instruction focused on building solid paragraphs into full-blown essays. Some kids mastered it, but many did not. About 25 years ago, in an effort to enliven instruction and get more kids writing, schools of education began promoting a different approach. The popular thinking was that writing should be “caught, not taught,” explains Steven Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State University. Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. Kids, the theory goes, will “catch” what they need in order to be successful writers. Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.

The catch method works for some kids, to a point. “Research tells us some students catch quite a bit, but not everything,” Graham says. And some kids don’t catch much at all. Kids who come from poverty, who had weak early instruction, or who have learning difficulties, he explains, “can’t catch anywhere near what they need” to write an essay. For most of the 1990s, elementary- and middle-­school children kept journals in which they wrote personal narratives, poetry, and memoirs and engaged in “peer editing,” without much attention to formal composition. Middle- and high-school teachers were supposed to provide the expository- and persuasive-writing instruction.
Then, in 2001, came No Child Left Behind. The program’s federally mandated tests assess two subjects—math and reading—and the familiar adage “What gets tested gets taught” has turned out to be true. Literacy, which once consisted of the ability to read for knowledge, write coherently, and express complex thoughts about the written word, has become synonymous with reading. Formal writing instruction has become even more of an after­thought.

Teacher surveys conducted by Arthur Applebee, the director of the Center on English Learning and Achievement at the University at Albany (part of the State University of New York system), found that even when writing instruction is offered, the teacher mostly does the composing and students fill in the blanks. “Writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding,” says Applebee, “has become increasingly rare.”

I agree with a lot of this.  NCLB - and its focus on basic skills - results in a lot of strategies and tactics that teach to the test.

The MN BST writing test calls for a personal narrative.  Now I'm all for personal narratives.  But how with a strong foundation in writing (and not just literacy skills as Applebee notes in the passage above), how many of our freshmen could pass the test on their first go around without having our nine week Comp 9 class (where they write several personal narratives in addition to other expository essays)?

I'm not saying at all that 2.5 weeks (approximately) of students writing personal essays is a bad thing.  I'm just wondering if there was a stronger base in grammar and formal writing - what Applebee says is “Writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding,” - which is why it's important that our Comp 9 class continues to write expository themes as well as personal narratives.

I also find this passage interesting -

The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children do not have to “catch” a single thing. They are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own. It is, at least initially, a rigid, unswerving formula. “I prefer recipe,” Hochman says, “but formula? Yes! Okay!”

It reminds me a great deal of two texts that I've come across.  The first is Beat Not the Poor Desk and the other is They say / I say (the latter is in use at UND for much of their freshmen composition courses).

As I've said countless times, I'm not against formulaic writing.  In fact, I teach formulaic writing for the second half of my College Comp courses.  I am against simply teaching ONE formula (the five paragraph theme).  I give my students various experiences in writing before I show them the five paragraph theme (descriptive, narrative, how to, braided, and then the thesis support format).

I think when this is done, students have a great foundation for writing.  And I think we do this very well across our district.  Can we get better at it? Of course.  But I don't think we should chuck everything we've been doing and jump to another approach.

In fact I began my intro to College Comp's first essay (a descriptive paragraph) asking them what makes up a "proper" paragraph.  Then I had them show me - they all knew to have a topic sentence followed by three supporting sentences and ending with a concluding sentences.  And that works for a basic paragraph.  However, I told them that for a descriptive paragraph, I don't want them to write like that at all.  You can give reasons why something is descriptive; you have to show it.

Later on when we write expository essays like the persuasive essay and the film review, we'll return to that basic formula and make it more appropriate for the college level.

It doesn't have to be a rudimentary formula.  After all, look at the form of the Atlantic piece itself.  That's not written in a specific formula.  If it were, a college professor might be reading it but not a large audience.

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